Soviet weapon air and ground systems in 1941

It has fascinated me for a long time how well-timed really good Soviet weapons arrived just prior to 1941. Some of them were still in infancy, and in need of improvement - others were already good enough to still be among the world's best in their class by '45.

They didn't just arrive shortly before WW2: They arrived almost at once, transforming the Red Army and with a short delay also its image among foreign intelligence services.

Let's look at it in detail, first the aircraft. Most combat aircraft of the Soviet Union in 1941 were obsolete models which had been great only a few years ago, but its most important designs were already in service:

1939: Li-2
transport aircraft
This was simply a licensed copy of the Douglas Dc-3 / C-47 design and accordingly a hugely useful and successful transport aircraft. The only major disappointment regarding the Li-2 that I'm aware of was the ineptitude of its pilots in regard to dropping airborne troops at least in about the correct region of the designated landing zone. Engines differed and it was redesigned for metric unit construction.

1940: LaGG-1
This evolved into the useful LaGG-3 (plagued by poor production quality control) and the re-engined La-5 and La-7  fighters. The family semblance is strong enough to consider it one basic design, comparable to Bf 109, Spitfire, Ju88 and other aircraft which received new engines and major fuselage modifications without redesignation.

1940: Yak-1

This one evolved into Yak-7, Yak-9 and Yak-3 fighter series, with even greater family semblance than the aforementioned fighter. It was among the few greatly successful lightweight fighter designs of WW2.

1941: Il-2
armoured close air support aircraft
This is the classic Sturmovik, diminished in its effect mostly by the overcautious tactics employed (typical: crossing front-line high, making a single ground attack pass at high speed and low altitude flying towards friendly lines on the way back - rarely penetration deeper than 10 km) and the often too limited training of its pilot. The greatest modifications to the basic design were the addition of a rear gunner (without armour protection) and improvement of armament.

1941: Pe-2
light bomber / multi-role aircraft
One of the few truly excellent light bomber designs of WW2, rivalling the Ju 88 and Bf 110 at the same time. Its effectiveness was diminished by their pilots' habit of flying at full throttle most of the time (high engine wear) and attacking rarely at substantial depth (most attack at less then 50 km depth). Only late in WW2 the medium Bomber Tu-2 added much to the Pe-2's services. The other really important early WW2 Soviet bomber was the long-range Il-4, which was more like an equivalent of the He 111.

These aircraft were enough; the only other major front aircraft of the Red Air Force were the MiG-1/-3 fighters (no better than Yaks and LaGGs in most cases), the Tu-2 and Il-4 (both could have been be substituted for by the Pe-2) and Lend-Lease aircraft. No other air force of World War Two had all necessary basic combat aircraft designs already in place when it entered the war. Only Germany came close with its Bf 109/Ju 88 combination.

- - - - -

Now let's look at the tanks. Most '41 tanks of the Soviet Union were obsolete fast or slow tanks (neither shell-proof) as well as some amphibious tankettes and a few oversized "heavy" tanks with still only bullet-proof armour.
The other breed of Soviet Union tanks were the shell-proofed tanks, which became the Red Army armour mainstay in WW2. They were still plagued by  suboptimal turret lay out (2-man concept) and a lack of radios till mid-war:

This was the first really shell-proofed heavy tank of the world, and a huge success. Later on this one evolved into casemate tanks and the Josef Stalin heavy tank series. The latter evolved farther to the post-war T-10 tank, a feared heavy tank at the height of the Cold War. The KV's armament and armour were most impressive at first, but did not keep pace well till the IS-2 offspring of '45 was fearsome in both regards again.

1940: T-34
medium tank

Probably the most important tank of WW2, second-most produced tank of WW2 and widely considered to be the first tank that balanced the firepower-mobility-protection trinity really well. It was a crude design with serious defects and its initial relative excellence in regard to brute strength was overshadowed by mid-'43, but it was obviously a good enough tank with good enough growth potential till '45. As far as I know there were still some seen in combat during the 90's. The T-34 also spawned considerable offspring; especially war-time casemate gun tanks.

These two tank designs were actually one more than necessary; the KV series could have been substituted for by the T-34. Many light tanks were produced alongside both, but that wasn't out of preference; the available factories were incapable of producing a T-34 and did thus produce the T-60, T-70, Su-76M etc..

The artillery branch became the principal strength of the Red Army. Artillery fire plans did not require much training or cohesion, but lots of brute strength. The Soviet artillery was fearsome in 1943-1945, even though it wasn't good at supporting manoeuvre forces with indirect fires. The Soviet Union did not have a great history of producing heavy ordnance till the 30's; Tsarist Russia had imported most of its artillery and wasn't able to produce nearly enough during 1914-1917. The Soviet Union had developed its heavy industries during the 30's and was in an altogether different league. Its heavy artillery was typically longer-ranged than the German counterparts and the light field artillery was of lighter construction. Problems of Soviet field artillery were quality of ammunition, quantity of ammunition, insufficient radio supply and not enough leader training.

(heavy gun-howitzer)
The Russians were especially fond of the intermediate concept of a gun-howitzer since the 18th century. Such a gun easily out-ranges a howitzer while having its utility and versatility. The gun was still in service in the Third World a few years ago.

(intermediate calibre field howitzer)
This was a hard-hitting howitzer. The calibre led to a gun too heavy for horse artillery under Eastern front conditions, but the Soviets had enough motor vehicles. The gun out-ranged the basic German 105 mm light field howitzer. The 122 mm calibre was a typical one for Russia, and only fell (mostly) out of favour when cargo (bomblet) shells made the heavier 152 mm calibre more efficient.

(light field cannon)
This was a fine light field cannon, but nothing special initially (the gun-laying was rather complicated for direct anti-tank defence, for example). It only became special when the gun was mated with the carriage of the 57 mm AT gun and turned into the ubiquitous 76.2 mm ZIS-3 gun. Only really good armour protection was enough against these guns, and they were more feared by German tank crews than the smaller calibre AT guns.

1941: 57 mm ZIS-2
(anti-tank gun)
This high-performance anti-tank gun was overengineered and expensive by Russian standards with its extremely long barrel. Its penetration did put to shame every other anti-tank gun in the world of 1941 that did not depend on more exotic ammunition (such as 7.5 cm Pak 41). The ZIS-2 production was restarted in 1943 when it proved to be necessary for countering heavy Tiger tanks (it punched easily through the Tiger's side armour). The 57 mm ZIS-2 gun was the best-performing WW2 anti-tank gun that was still lightweight enough for crew-handling during combat (100 kg more would already have been too much). The German AT gun situation of 1941 looked ill-guided, the British and U.S. AT guns of 1941 looked utterly obsolete in comparison to this gun. The Soviets' biggest problem regarding this gun was its expensiveness, thus they had to produce lots of not so outstanding 45 mm AT guns which ran into the same problems as foreign counterparts of the 37-47 mm range.

- - - - -

Mortars, anti-air artillery and multiple rocket launchers. This wasn't exactly a weakness of the Soviets either; in fact, they were world-best with some of this equipment:

(heavy mortar)
This was a Soviet offspring of a 120 mm mortar designed by the French company Brandt (Mortier Brandt de 120 mm mle 1935), the leading mortar developer of the inter-war period. The development apparently saw a detour through the company Tampella, Finland. The Soviets later further simplified the production of this mortar into a new version (1943). Germans encountered this mortar concept already in France 1940, but only understood the extremely great value of the concept later in Russia. Germany began to copy this copy almost without any modification. 120 mm is today world-wide a most important mortar calibre and almost the only reason for the disappearance of infantry guns.

This was the Soviet version of the French 81.4 mm mortar (Mortier Brandt de 81 mm mle 27/31) that revolutionised infantry battalion fire support all over the world. The slightly modified version of 1941 was standard till long after the war. The Soviets loved mortars (probably because the artillery was often unresponsive when the infantry needed help) and produced this one and others in unbelievable quantities (about 350,000 Soviet mortars produced during WW2!).

(light mortar)
A light mortar with bipod similar to the Brandt pattern, used as company mortar. Modern mortars of this kind dispense with the bipod and are used for direct fire (and the Soviets dispensed with the bipod in 1941, too). The design was more sound than the German and Italian light mortars, which were both over-engineered. Being among the best light mortars of the world (the Brandt Mortier 60 mm de mle 1935 was a good foreign model) didn't save it from being regarded a bit weak with its light mortar bomb and production of such mortars was discontinued in 1943.

(heavy anti-air artillery)
The Soviets toyed around with 76.2 mm cannons as heavy AAA, but quickly realised that their 85 mm cannon was an outstanding design. The fire control wasn't top notch for anti-air purposes, but the powerful ballistics turned it into the primary Soviet answer to the heavy armour plating used by new German tanks 1943-1945. This gun was often compared to the German 88 mm Flak, and in fact only slightly less powerful.Germany re-bored such guns to 88 mm calibre for use as homeland defence AAA.
Strangely, the Soviets did not introduce this gun as a field cannon / AT gun. One such 85 mm gun arrived in 1944, but it was a very different design.

(automatic anti-air artillery)

This was a typical, albeit not outstanding AAA gun. It was good enough for service during the whole war, comparable to famous counterparts such as the 3.7 cm Flak 36 or the 40 mm Bofors L/56.

(c) RIA Novosti, see here
(Multiple rocket launcher)
The Russians got it right in regard to small rockets during the 1930s; fin stabilised and solid rocket fuel. The RS-132 rocket (originally meant for aircraft) was adapted for use as artillery rocket (and old idea which never proved to be particularly good in the preceding centuries) and had great success with it. The compressed firepower of a rocket battalion equipped with cheap launchers of this kind was awesome. The short range and tell-tale signature required a self-propelled launcher, though. The Soviets developed further MRL designs, but the original one was good enough and most important.

- - - - -

The Red Army's infantry also received lots of high quality new weapons in the same timeframe (excluding mortars, since they were already mentioned):

(very heavy machine gun)
This was the equivalent of the U.S. Browning M2HB. It was a respectable weapon against low-flying aircraft (more frightening to pilots than really scoring many kills) and deadly to the lightly armoured German half-track or wheeled armoured recce vehicles. The aircraft gun of the same calibre (UB) was more important than the ground version.

(C) Deutsches Bundesarchiv, see here

(self-loading rifle)
This was an imperfect, but still very useful self-loading rifle and a favourite among Germans - once captured. Practical self-loading rifles were rare at that time because the powerful rifle cartridges (designed with stopping horses in mind) made it difficult to develop a safe and reliable mechanism at a weight acceptable for a rifle (some such attempts yielded rather failures or light machine guns a.k.a. "automatic rifles" such as the BAR).

The only indispensable pre-1937 weapon designs of the Russian infantry were machine guns; the outstanding DP 1928 light machine gun and the old Maxim PM 1910. The attempt of a modern heavy machinegun proved to be a failure and thus the iconic PM 1910 had to fill the gap till a true successor was available in 1943. On top of that, the old Mosin-Nagant repeating rifles and carbines were still in use as well, and the Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle proved to be substantially more accurate than the SVT-40.

Infantry weapons violate the pattern of Red Army modernisation in 1937-1941: The Tokarev wasn't fully satisfying, the PPSh-1941 submachinegun was only ready for production months after the invasion, the new heavy machinegun was a failure, the old light machinegun was still unsurpassed and only a single weapon (DShK) fits to the pattern of modernisation known from the heavy weapons and aircraft.

- - - - -

Overall, the influx of high quality weapon types in 1937-1941 was most remarkable and in stark contrast to all other countries but the re-arming Germany. I wonder how we would react if an unfriendly, powerful country had such an influx of new and modern if not world-leading military hardware in the near future.

S Ortmann

P.S.: Having so many new weapons is of course a problem in regard to the reserve; reserve conscripts were mostly trained on the First World War weaponry, and in First World War tactics.


  1. Nice Job Sven. Stalin had a mania for secrecy and kept his T-34 (and other weapons) in stores right up until Wehrmacht reached them. T-34 Tank Crew training was conducted on mockups and similar mechanical systems. The only people allowed to know about the T-34 were NKVD troops who guarded them. On Mortars; Artillery was meant to be used at the so-called decisive point (it sounds simple but early in the war the Red Army constantly misjudged said point). All attacks went forward with only organic fire support of the Battalion. Of course a BN commander could be shot for allowing the basic load of his his artillery battery and Mortars to be used up before the "decisive" spot was found. Until later in the war, when German equipment and manpower were considerably lessened, No commander of any stripe could ask for supporting fires from his higher HQ unless he was in a breakthrough. It was possible for a Division or Corp to order a short preparatory barrage, but most was saved for the breakthrough. It wasn't uncommon for an infantry Plt leader to have a signals plt attached and all division artillery at his disposal... and his company commander to have corp/Army Artillery at his call. On the other hand a company that was completely stalled might well lose it's mortars to a company that was advancing.

  2. An excellent roundup of equipment with excellent commentary.

    Even the Soviet equipment they were replacing was not all that bad.

    The tanks were roughly equivelant to the Panzer IIs and the (captured-sort of) T-38s that the Germans started the war with.

    The fighter planes weren't appreciably worse than Gladiators and Hurricanes.

    Everyone got caught behind the curve at some point in the war. In the case of the Russians, it seems like they held onto their anti-tank rifles for a really long time.

    I am not a mortar expert, but I thought it was the Stokes that changed the mortar game?

  3. The AT rifles were useful because of the thinly armoured half-tracks and because of the thinly armoured recce cars. The were also dangerous to the thin side armour of many tanks and assault guns and prevented the use of the early (lightly armoured tank destroyers) as assault guns.
    The vast majority of the AT rifles were furthermore cheap single shot rifles.

    You can further think of them as discontinued ancestors of the modern anti-material rifles in 12.7 mm calibre. Sometimes you just love the ability to penetrate some wall, tree or thin armour plate (with at least one weapon per platoon).

  4. Having spent quite some time in Russia I learned to understand and appreciate the philosophy behind Russian heavy machinery and warfighting stuff. Stalin and his gang - well, we don't have to talk about that, but if one remembers the state of things in Russia at the end of WW1, and how rapidly they created a industry nation that was quite an achievement. KnAAPO for example, the same people who then ran the plant also built the plant, picking away with shovels and pickaxe at the frozen far-east soil, building a factory from nothing. The problem the Soviets had was not so much hardware as the rigid and paranoid trust-no-one approach to everything.

  5. A vast array of new Russian weapons came online in 1941, because that was the timeline they had set for their own conquest of france....

  6. I think you are making a virtue out of necessity, especially with regards to Soviet air power. The fighters were made from freaking plywood, with no 2 airframes alike. Il-2 was slow and had a pathetic warload. They were not a result of some pragmatic genius. They were simply the best that could be made, given the limited technological base. If they could have made Me-109s and Typhoons, they would have.

  7. Matthias Wilde15 May 2012 14:44

    TrT, is that a joke?

  8. So?; this blog post was about designs, not the production quality (which was poor in 1941) albeit I did mention the same.
    The Soviets did not actually hold Lend-Lease aircraft in such high regard, the Spitfire was reportedly not really popular, for example. The Spitfire was no doubt among the better aircraft types delivered.

    The Bf 109 had a too narrow landing gear and wasn't well-suited for the East at all.

    The Ilyushin's load of bombs was fine, considering its armour plating, 2nd crew member with defensive 12.7 mm and the fact that its best opponents (Fw 190F) did rarely fly with more than 450 kg of bombs (250 + 4x50).

  9. That's the point. The designs were only good from the point of getting the most of out of a very limited manufacturing base. So the designers did a great job in that regard. But the aircraft themselves were hardly world-beaters.

  10. Actually, the Yak-3 was likely better than a Spitfire V or IX at the altitudes relevant in the East. Yak-1 was about the equivalent of a P-40.

    The Pe-2 was comparable to the A-20 Boston/Havoc (smaller bombload, but better defences, more manoeuvrable and capable of dive attack).

    The Il-2 had no Western equivalent and the German Hs 129 was clearly inferior.

    The mortars knew no foreign superiors.

    The ZIS-2 was world best, rivalled only by the German squeeze-bore AT guns.

    KV and T-34 were superior to everything the Western powers had, even to the few contemporary Firefly tanks.

    The Katyusha had no Western equal till about '44.

    The field artillery mentioned was superior or at least equal to Western designs.

    The AAA was equal, inferiority existed primarily in regard to fire control and ammunition quality.

    The SVT40 knew only one superior self-loading service rifle world-wide in 1940; the Garand, which existed only in small numbers during the SVT 40's quantity production run.

    I sense some deeply entrenched prejudices.

  11. Matthias Wilde17 May 2012 03:34

    Haha, while in So?s case it does not necessarily have to be the case, anti-Russian, or anti-slavic sentiments in general are unfortunately quite widespread.

    This whole Cold War/Anglocentric BS is indeed quite annoying.


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